Weirdly, there are almost no reviews of the Asphalt Ribbons’s (proto-Tindersticks) only album on the web. A couple of sites describe the band as ‘more countryish’ than the Tindersticks. Strange. I don’t hear ‘country’ in here at all. This kind of chiming, jangling, ringing guitar pop has something in common with other late 80s English indie bands such as The House of Love. Old Horse only just got re-released on vinyl through the Tindersticks’s website earlier this year (2011). I had no idea what to expect – an indie version of the Tindersticks? And that’s exactly what it is. For any Tindersticks lovers out there, you won’t fail to enjoy this album, that’s how much it sounds like them, although it sounds more guitar based. And with Stuart Staples on lead vocal, David Boulter on keyboards and Dickon Hinchliffe on violin, how could it not sound like the Tindersticks?
So, this is good news. Not only that, it’s a highly accessible album, possibly overlooked in its own time. What it doesn’t have that Tindersticks I did is the brass and string sections. So perhaps it didn’t quite stand out as being unique enough in those post-Manchester, pre-Brit-pop days when shoegaze was the in sound from way out. It’s only six tracks though, so it plays out more like a mini-album or an extended EP. I’ve really enjoyed hearing this—it grows on you quickly enough and the amazing thing is that it doesn’t sound too dated. Sound reproduction clearly made huge leaps by the end of the 80s so that a lot of pop music since then has stopped dating the way that say early 80s music and everything before that did. It’s always been the case that music which utilizes synthetic sound-reproduction technology obsolesces most obviously, but the quality of much electronica from the 90s sounds as contemporary now as it did then. Gently lower the tone arm Bumstead and let’s spur this nag into action…
Rosemarie… kicks off the record with a gorgeous whining keyboard sound, strummed acoustic guitars, wonderful tune, and Staples sounding not much different to how he does on Falling Down A Mountain despite being twenty years younger. The pace is a kick ass rocking horse rhythm, very danceable, those keyboard and electric guitar parts sort of glide together, soaring and dipping, and while I can make out quite a few lyrics, it’s only ever bits and pieces so it’s difficult to grasp quite what the song’s about. Then the guitars all drop out while a cello starts churning a rhythm all of its own. Staples keeps singing something like “Somewhere out there / There’s the keys to the jeep.” There’s a violin part towards the end that reminds me a lot of ‘City Sickness.’ This is a fantastic opener, really. Great tune.
Old Horse… has a more brooding mysterious sound, with a piping violin part, and the song notches up a gear into its chorus quite quickly. It has a similar uptempo feel to ‘Rosemarie,’ again with violin and electric guitar parts that seem to play in and out of sync with each other to create a gorgeous melody. The violins start wailing wildly in the instrumental break. Someone must have said, “Yes, yes! Do a lot more of that on your next album.” Staples sings something about a “Thoroughbred” and “Now I’m an old horse,” begging someone, “Don’t let them see me this way / Didn’t you say / Why don’t you just slip away.” Other voices support him in the chorus, before those wild violins come warbling back in. Again this has a great melody, although I’m not so enamoured of the fussy insistency of the drumbeat. Violin plays staccato as song fades out.
Stale Inside… yet another uptempo number, this time with something that sounds like a box concertina. “Say give me a call / I know you’re giving me all / Stale inside / I’m stale inside / It’s one of those kind of things…” but I can’t discern what comes after that. That’s the problem here—as soon as the violinist starts up everything becomes intense and all the precision on the vocals is noised out. “Make you cry / It’s just a matter of time / You look into my eyes / Say you see the pain inside / I try to smile …[something about] crocodiles.” And then this brief instrumental break with all sorts of wild noise freakout on the accordion. Nice. Again quite melodic. Best track on Side One was definitely Rosemarie though. The next two songs were above average melodic indie fare.
The Distance Between Us… also opens all dramatic, electric guitars, strummed acoustics, itchy insistent drumbeat. All sounds like it’s in a bit too much of a hurry. Another decent melody here. “I’ll always come back to you / Cos there’s a distance between us but it’s nothing to this distance between us / This crazy place / Borders on the extreme … / The day you stop squirming / The day you cease to care.” Seems to be a song about a couple getting further apart. “I’ve got my timetable / I’ve got my schedule / I need a plan to be with her again / She’s got her books to read / Friends to see.” There’s a distinct sound aesthetic to all of these songs—they all run about the same speed with a similar ‘clean’ guitar and violin sound and just enough space in the mix to give the feel of room echo. All have catchy melodies and choruses.
Strong Hands… is just as good as ‘Rosemarie.’ This sounds more like it could easily fit on Tindersticks I or II. It has this lone, clean keyboard or guitar line (I can’t tell) playing a pretty melody and the rhythm is slightly more relaxed, which leads to me a conclusion of sorts—I much prefer these guys when they keep it slow. “Have you got strong hands / To catch me / Cos I’m coming down so fast / Like a sixteen stone teardrop / And are you gonna make that catch / Woah oh.” Love the violin part echoing away in the background, and I would have to say that this too reminds me of ‘City Sickness’ the way the violin brings the song up to an emotive height. The backing music on the chorus is elegant, charming. Staples starts repeating the chorus about coming down so fast like a sixteen stone teardrop. I guess he needs her to catch him. Music all drops out except for the pulsing bassline, while Staples sings the chorus again in a very delicate wavery voice, and finally, “splash.” Heh. Nice ending. Great song. Longest one here.
Downside… and we’re back to the same sound as the other three speedier numbers. It seems like the drummer only has one rhythm. There’s guitars, violins, and concertina again all playing along in lines together to create momentum in between verses. The tune here is another goodie. “This is the down / Side / This is the down / Side.” The guitar does this slide thing and the violin player starts letting loose, the pulse never lets up, that slidey part, and “What’s the use in starting again / If you’re gonna feel like this again … / There’s no use in running / You just run in circles / There’s no point in trying to hide / From the downside.” Third best song, love the tune on this one.
So, that was short and sweet. Listening to it closely, I can hear how similar the songs are to one another. ‘Strong Hands’ and ‘Rosemarie’ both use the same kind of structure in their melodies. The others all use similar drumbeats and similar structures where the instruments all join for short intense melodic sections in between verses. For the most part, I struggle to catch the lyrics but looking back at the parts I have quoted, they give a pretty good indication of where Staples stands here—songs about failing relationships, wondering whether things can be patched up, a little bit of self-loathing perhaps, enumerations of his own failures and women that seem to let him down or that he’s always letting down. So, no different to many of the Tindersticks’s songs then. Criticism? The songs often seemed tied too strongly to their structures so that they arrive, are rushed through all very efficiently, and then duck out again in a hurry, as if worried they might overstay their welcome. This is to say that there’s quite a leap between the tight compact nature of these songs and the slower, looser feel of what was to come on the first Tindersticks album Tindersticks I.